Library traffic reaches a new high
Whether it’s an undisclosed menu item or a clandestine powder stash, Crested Butte has always been an amalgam of best-kept secrets. But as town becomes more on the radar, so do its local institutions, and many are experiencing an unprecedented boom in business.
When pinpointing growth, the Old Rock Library probably isn’t the first location that comes to mind. After all, residing in the digital age means books have taken a backseat to tablets and screens in general. While this may be true, library employee Jen Hillebrandt explained why a decline of physical books doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of libraries.
“Libraries aren’t just about books anymore. There are so many programs out there, and libraries are a community hub, which is what we try to be,” Hillebrandt said. “Kind of like a second chamber of commerce, but it’s free, and you don’t have to be a business to join.”
Programming and community outreach have launched library numbers into unchartered territory. In 2014, 5,102 people called the Old Rock their home library, a 459-person growth from the previous year. The addition of 19 children’s programs and 15 adult programs facilitated this expansion, library staff says. Overall, attendees at programs grew by 523 people, a 12 percent increase.
“It’s not just about literacy and books, it’s about information, any genre, any type, any style, which is really fun and exciting. I mean, we do wine tastings here. We’ve had goats here!” Hillebrandt explained.
Wine tastings are just one of the many events hosted by the library to bring bodies through the door. General manager Debra Reich explained that, while the programs are great for gathering together members of the community, the main purpose is to bring attention to the numerous services the library provides.
“The more programs that we hold, the more people come in the door, and then they say, ‘Oh! I didn’t know you had downloadable books,’ or, ‘I didn’t know you had audio books,’ and, ‘Wow! Look at all the movies you have!’ So they come in for one thing, but leave with new knowledge,” Reich said.
Having a library card comes with copious benefits and advantages, some of which may never occur to the non-cardholder. When people choose not to get library cards, Hillebrandt attributes much of that hesitation to the rise of digital readers, such as Kindles and Nooks.
“There’s a lot you can do with your technology while still utilizing library services,” Hillebrandt said. “We never have to see you, which is sad, but you can do it all from home.”
People who own digital readers or tablets often perceive the library as a useless recourse, rationalizing that any physical book the library may possess can just as easily be downloaded digitally. What many don’t realize is that the library now utilizes a digital database, called the Marmot Overdrive Digital Collection, where books, magazines and more can be downloaded onto digital devices. The only difference is the price, or lack thereof. Rather than paying $9.99 to download a book through the Kindle store, a library cardholder can download that same book for free through the library’s digital database.
Spreading information like this is a huge part of Hillebrandt’s job as the library’s youth services and outreach coordinator. Establishing a strong presence, both online and in the community, is what Reich and Hillebrandt believe will continue to drive library traffic.
“We have a goal of getting outside of this building,” Hillebrandt explained, “just being a presence at other events, other organizations, going to Town Council meetings, and keeping the library on everybody’s radar.”
Though the focus of her job is early literacy, programs run by Hillebrandt encompass a wide range of ages and interests. Collaborating with local businesses, she says, is one of the keys to her success.
“I collaborate with lots of organizations, so I go to The Trailhead, I go to the preschools, and I do a book club in the bars now,” Hillebrandt said.
The Books n’ Bars program was an idea Hillebrandt borrowed from her colleague at the Pitkin County Library in Aspen. The first event was held in early December at the Eldo, where participants discussed The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich.
Eldo owner Karl Plambeck and his fiancée, Lexy Archer, were intrigued by the notion of hosting a book club in a bar, so when Hillebrandt solicited their help in hosting the first meeting, there was no hesitation.
“We were both honored and excited to participate,” Archer said. “I loved the idea of sharing thoughts and opinions on a book over some great snacks, Eldo beers and libations.”
Books n’ Bars aims to engage millennials, an age group that often overlooks the conveniences of the library. Having recently moved to town, Katy Mooney said the event helped her familiarize herself with the community and meet other locals.
“Holding the meeting at a bar made it more accessible to young people,” Mooney said. “It’s like the new age of book clubs.”
As of late, and most likely due to the rise in young adult programming, 20-somethings make up the majority of library card applicants. Perhaps surprisingly, the most difficult age group to attract, Reich and Hillebrandt say, is teenagers.
“Socially, teens want their own space, they want to be with other teens,” Hillebrandt explained. “A lot of teens check out books, but they just don’t read for pleasure, they don’t have time for that.”
In response to the need for an isolated teen section, Reich and Hillebrandt applied for a town service grant to finance the project. With those funds came the “teen corner,” complete with a handpicked selection of young adult literature and a funky lounge chair affixed to the wall.
For the first time this January, Reich also plans to extend library hours specifically to allow teens to study for high school.
“We are going to be open from 7 to 10 p.m. for three nights in a row before high school exams,” Reich said. “We’re going to give them junk food, caffeinated drinks, and allow them to be together to study.”
Reich and Hillebrandt understand that, after a long day in school, most kids just want to unwind, which is why they developed after school activities to allow children to interact with friends while also participating in mentally stimulating activities.
“Generally, the kids who come after school just want to blow off some steam,” Reich explained. “So we let them do something where they can sit, be creative, talk to each other and relax. Nothing too challenging, because when you’ve been in school all day you just want to talk to your friends.”
Recently Hillebrandt utilized Tween Scene, a Wednesday afternoon program for eight to 12-year-olds, to host “An Hour of Code,” a worldwide, basic introduction to computer science and programming. Using a sequence of simple instructions, kids employed computer coding to draw pictures of snowflakes, with characters from Frozen and “Angry Birds” as catalysts.
“I learned how to move stuff from one place to another on a computer,” Oliver van Tiel, Tween Scene regular and “An Hour of Code” participant, said. “It was really awesome, and I hope we do it more often.”
Recognizing the importance of digital literacy, Hillebrandt hopes for this exact reaction from her program attendees. She doesn’t pursue unrealistic expectations, but simply aims to broaden minds.
“They aren’t all going to grow up to be computer programmers, but the fact that they know that when they click on something on a computer, somebody wrote a code to make that happen, it makes their brains that much bigger,” Hillebrandt said. “It makes those neurons connect, and they think about something else along the way.”
Both former educators, Reich and Hillebrandt share a passion for learning and teaching, which shines through in their customer service. The Old Rock’s cozy, small-town vibe gives the library immense character, but the staff’s personal touch is what separates it from most.
“We consistently provide quality service to our patrons, and I think that’s important,” Reich said. “They know they are going to get what they want. We know what our patrons read, and we try to help them in any way we can.”
For more information on how to register for a library card, visit www.gunnisoncountylibraries.org.